Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 7 News List

New York students to get phones for doing well at school

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

What's the cheapest way to text message your friends? For thousands of New York's middle school students, the answer now is to earn an "A."

Education officials began doling out cellphones to 2,500 students on Wednesday as part of a closely watched experiment to try to change the way teenagers think about doing well in school. The pilot program, at three Brooklyn middle schools and four charter schools, is part of an effort by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to motivate students to perform better academically -- and reward them when they do.

Each student is receiving a Samsung phone in a package specially designed with the program's logo. The phones come loaded with 130 prepaid minutes. Good behavior, attendance, homework and test scores will be rewarded with additional minutes. Teachers and administrators will also be able to use a system to send text messages to several students at a time, to remind them of upcoming tests or other school information.

Some critics say it is absurd for school officials to reward students with a device that is banned from the public schools.

Klein gamely tried to brush off such criticism during a press conference announcing the start of the program at Intermediate School 349 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

"Every kid in the city, if they could afford one, would have a cellphone," Klein said. "They live a life outside of school. It's like anything else. You can play basketball when you're outside school, but you can't play it in the middle of math class."

As he pulled out a sample phone to show to reporters, Klein pointedly took the battery out to ensure that the phone could not be used in the school.

The program, called "Million," to refer to the city's 1.1 million students, is being designed and monitored by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who, as the city's chief equality officer, is also overseeing a project to reward students with cash for doing well on tests.

While some have criticized Fryer's incentive programs, saying they undermine the idea of learning simply for the sake of learning, Klein has ardently defended the experiments.

"This is not about preaching, this is about reality," Klein said. "We have an enormous set of challenges of student motivation in their education and finding ways to get those kids excited."

The US$2 million for the pilot cellphone program was raised from private donors through the Fund for Public Schools.

The program was substantially scaled back from a target of 10,000 to 15,000 students, in part because the department was unable to raise enough money for so many students.

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